We just had our latest Intersections: Faith and the Arts Conference this last weekend, and I have been ruminating over the dozens of significant conversations and lectures and artistic expressions I experienced ever since. This once-a-year gathering of artists of faith continues to impress me, and impress upon me. Here are a few thoughts from the conference, in no particular order.
Artists were meant to live in community.
Interestingly, artists are like normal human beings in that we were designed to be in community. One of the best things about this conference is that it is not just a meeting of artists, but more so about the creating and nurturing of relationships between artists. There are quite a number of friendships and connections that have been built over the course of these last five years of conferences, and it’s local focus has resulted in artistic collaboration and deep friendships among many of us. As one person coined, we are “The Bezelites,” and we intrinsically feel the kinship that comes with being fellow artists of faith. (By the way, “Bezelite” is a fun word to say.)
Similar to previous conferences, we had the usual diversity of artistic disciplines—dance, music, filmmaking, theater, visual and literary arts. But this year, I was also struck by the diversity with which God is using the arts. From Tiffany Paige sharing her experiences working with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients to Derek Martin sharing his vision for the newly formed Creative Arts Program at William Jessup University. From the many stories I am hearing of the arts being manifested out in the world marketplace—in local community theater, in secular art galleries and midtown art walks, and even in clubs and open mics where people are performing. From the diverse expressions of the arts that are beginning to manifest itself within the walls of the church—Christian Youth Theater programs, art galleries and open studios, and even quality film. No doubt about it, it’s an exciting time to be an artist of faith.
There were quite a number of conversations about the quality of “Christian arts” (e.g., Christian film, Christian painting, Christian music), and how there is quite a communal distaste for art that is cliche, derivative, propaganda-based, dishonest, and mediocre. I think this is a healthy sign. The general view that everyone seemed to agree with is that if our art is to make a difference in the world, it must be art that can stand on the merit of its quality, and not simply its spirituality. And really, art that is excellent inherently glorifies God.
The dialogue seems different now. Five years ago, much of our discussion revolved around asking the question, “Am I an artist?” And while we are still asking that question on deeper levels, I think the conversations have evolved. More and more, we talk about how God is using our art, or furthering our art, or manifesting our art. We are talking about questions of execution and relevance and honesty in our art. We talk about how we can work together to do art together. Once again, it’s an exciting time to be an artist of faith.
Artists are passionate about God.
During the conference, there seemed to me to be an overall meta-narrative that held every conversation together, and it was this: God is doing something in us, through us, and sometimes even in spite of us. But God is doing something with our art. In the inspiration, in the execution, in the circumstance, in the dialogue between art and audience. And there is an overall expectation that He will continue to do so.
I’ll say it again. It’s an exciting time to be an artist of faith.
Thank you to the many volunteers from the many churches who were involved (especially the team of artists from Oak Hills Church—you’re the best!). Thank you to the many people who contributed a word of encouragement, challenge, and wisdom to our on-going dialogue. And thank you to our God for being our Creator, our Inspirer, and Redeemer.
[Photos: (1) Derek Martin, Director of the Creative Arts Program at William Jessup University; (2) Michelle Alias and Kayla Krogh of the professional Christian dance company, Pneuma Movement, present "The Imposter," choreographed by Kelly Archer; (3) Tiffany Paige, Director of ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimers, delivers an moving and inspiring speech; (4) Ryan Harbert and Owen Smith perform an excerpt from "Greater Tuna," a production of the Green Valley Theatre in Sacramento; (5) Jazz pianist extraordinaire Jim Martinez shares some stories and music; (6) Producers Alan Koshiyama and Kevin Haskin share a clip from their independent full-feature film, "I Was Broken."]
Canadian singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen composed a song decades ago that has only recently impressed itself upon me. Regarded by some critics as one of the greatest songs ever, “Hallelujah” has been covered by dozens of artists, and has appeared in movies, television shows, and albums worldwide. Both sincere and ironic, Gospel and waltz, celebratory and mournful, the song has been described as “tiptoe(ing) the line between salvation and despair.”
Of musical note is that the chords economically prance around the circle of fifths in literal step with the lyric, while the melody rises in forlorn expectation before sinking despondently into the hook. At the same time, it is a beautifully crafted story song—David before Saul, David with Bethsheba, Samson and Delilah. For us geek songwriters, it may have one of the most perfect first verses ever penned:
I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?
Well it goes like this the fourth, the fifth
The minor fall and the major lift
The baffled king composing Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
The word “hallelujah” is a Hebrew term which roughly translated means “Praise ye the LORD.” It is used in the bible as both an exhortation, i.e., an encouragement to praise God, and as an exaltation, i.e., a direct expression of praise. What completely turns the song upside down for me is that Cohen brilliantly uses the word not only as a term of exhortation and exaltation, but in a more deeply nuanced expression of melancholy, longing, aching. “Hallelujah,” in just a few skillfully crafted verses, becomes an anthem of the deep longings inside each of us—the longing for spiritual peace, for love without reservation, for hope-filled redemption—and ultimately for God.
The reason why the song has recently captured my attention is because I’ve been spending the last six weeks trying not to sing it. Let me explain.
Lent is the period in the Christian calendar preceding Easter. Traditionally marking the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert in preparation for His ministry, Lent is a period of abstention and self-reflection, intended to prepare us for Holy Week and the ultimate triumph of Christ over the cross.
In several Christian traditions, the practice of abstention also includes not saying or singing the word “hallelujah” in the liturgy. And a number of years ago, we adopted this tradition as a spiritual practice at my church. So over the last two months or so, I’ve been selecting songs and crafting readings in our worship services that avoid the term. (As a sidebar, there is a inexplicable power and freedom in being able to wholeheartedly sing “Hallelujah!” on Easter Sunday after abstaining from it’s use for seven weeks.) So not singing the word, “hallelujah,” has been an act of worship for me personally, and corporately for my church. And in the process, my longing to sing it again on Easter Sunday grows.
For those of us who are songwriters of faith, there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is something more honest, more real, about the way Cohen uses the term “hallelujah” than that which is more obvious and literal. As songwriters, our job is not to write a sermon; it is to create art. For art has the capacity to reveal Truth in ways that mere words cannot. We must always be serious and respectful of our calling as songwriters, always striving to go for the deeper meaning, the deeper honesty, the deeper Truth.
Here’s a version by Rufus Wainwright with some different lyrics (you might know this one as the Shrek song). I invite you to listen to the song with fresh ears, and enter into its poetic humanity.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah
Many many years ago, I had just begun serving as the worship pastor for a wonderful church. Now it was important that I win over a number of skeptics, particularly those who preferred a more traditional style of worship. So when I was asked to speak and lead worship at a “North of 50″ event, I knew I had to put my best foot forward.
I had prepared what I felt was a theologically-grounded and engaging sermon, and stacked the worship set that morning with my favorite hymns. But just to give me an additional edge, I invited my wife to bring our two incredibly sweet and cuddly four-year-old twin daughters. I mean, the cutesy factor couldn’t hurt, right?
By the time we arrived, the fellowship hall was already packing out. Now, to call this a “North of 50″ event was a bit generous. Most of those in attendance were retirees, traditional and proper and Baptist. True to form, my daughters began making the rounds, smiling and waving and basically creating delight everywhere they went. I went about the business of “pastoring,” shaking hands and making sure everyone felt welcome and included. But the truth of the matter was, I was the new guy, not them. After some preliminaries, I was invited to step forward and lead them in worship.
As I stated, my worship set was stacked with hymns that morning, in an effort to connect with this demographic slice of my new congregation. I sat at the piano, read and underscored a Psalm as a Call To Worship, and invited them to sing with me.
Now it’s my tendency in worship to close my eyes when I can. It helps me focus vertically, which is important because a worship leader has a lot on his mind during worship. A worship leader is thinking about playing the song, singing the lyrics, leading the congregation, directing the band, cueing the tech people, and paying attention to the senior pastor—all while focusing on God. (A worship leader’s mind is a pretty cluttered place.) So though I close my eyes, I am constantly peeking to make sure everything—and everyone—is doing okay.
Things were going extremely well into the second song. People seemed engaged and were singing robustly, and I was genuinely enjoying these moments before the Lord. What I didn’t know was that one of my daughters had slipped away from my wife and had made her way on to the stage. As I opened my eyes, I suddenly noticed her in front of my grand piano, hands in the air, spring dress twirling, feet swirling in lazy circles. Dancing. Elated, her twin sister quickly joined her. And suddenly, I had two little ballerinas on the stage.
Now when I said these people were Baptist, I mean it in every sense of the word. Dancing is akin to gambling, smoking, drinking, shooting heroin, playing billiards. So I panicked. As a cold sweat broke on the back of my neck, I glanced at my wife, who could only offer me a wide-eyed shrug of the shoulders. I thought about stopping the song and grabbing them, but that would only punctuate the situation. “I am so in trouble,” I thought to myself. Resigned to my fate, I kept singing.
In the midst of my panic, I spied the crowd. By this time, most everyone had stopped singing. But what I saw nearly stopped me in my tracks. Instead of stern disapproval, I saw a room full of warm, wide smiles. To my surprise, every person there had become captivated by this pair of four-year-olds. The freedom and abandonment they had in expressing their simple joy and delight before God was, in a word, intoxicating.
“Then sing my soul, my Savior God to Thee, how great Thou art, how great Thou art…,” I continued to sing.
And as they twirled and jumped and swept their tiny little arms about, I began to realize that I wasn’t leading worship. My daughters were.
Rachel and Paige taught me a few things that morning. Like, worship may not be so much about me and my supposedly weighty concerns. Profound Truth can be found in a simple, unfettered smile. And God takes great delight in the purely offered worship of His children.
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18:3 TNIV
I have a theory. I’m at the age where I’ve actually gained some real experiential wisdom, but I’m still relatively young enough to act on it. So I try to consider this stage of my life carefully, not wanting to waste it, but instead use my time fruitfully—in ministry, in my art, with my family, and in my life.
Now that doesn’t always work out that way. (Seriously, I think I might have the weirdest job in the world.) But I do endeavor to place the sillyness of art and ministry in the context of living a life worth living. And I think there’s a little wisdom in that.
Here’s my annual “By The Numbers” blog, where I take a look at highlights of this last year. There have been unique opportunities and new relationships and difficult challenges this year, and I find myself once again grateful and humbled by God’s faithfulness. Here’s a summary of 2012, By The Numbers…
Number of Blog Entries: 37. Creativity and mystery. Artist profiles and short stories. Mission trip reports and reflections on the arts. According to my WordPress host, Adventures in Faith and Art had over 25,000 hits this year. (Relatively speaking, a modest number.) But as the size of my blog audience continues to slowly grow, I am grateful to all of you for the privilege of allowing me to dialogue with you.
Number of Mission Trips: 1. More than just a missions trip, I had an awesome time traveling for three weeks in February to Legazpi City, Philippines, to teach at the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership, sponsored by the North American Baptist Conference. I taught a credited class on worship to their Bible students, as well as conducted workshops, preached, and met many great people who love the Lord. You can read all about it here. I also got in contact with my roots (I’d never been to the Philippines before), and I ate a whole lot of Filipino food. Yum. I hope to go back again.
Number of Gigs: 48. A relatively slow year for me, with highlights that include a few non-profits fundraisers (including The Twin Lakes Food Bank and The Playmakers), some fun concerts, a few corporate events, and a whole lot of piano bar.
Number of Speaking Engagements: 8. Highlights include the Creative Church Conference (speaking and performing) in Boise, locally at our own Intersections Conference, speaking to students at William Jessup University and other locales, and several opportunities while in the Philippines.
Number of New Albums: 1. Featuring the Manuel Luz Trio (ML3), our new album Unraveled was pre-released in December 2012, and will be rolled out in 2013 with a CD Release Concert on January 26. Look for info soon! We’re also looking for opportunities to perform, so let us know if you have a venue you’d like ML3 to play at. [Note: See ordering information as well as exclusive liner notes here on this web page.] Speaking of which…
Number of Books Written: 2. I wrote the bulk of two new manuscripts in 2012, both with different spins on faith and the arts, but at this point, no publishers are interested in them. I’ve tried not to be discouraged by that, knowing the fact that I had Imagine That published at all was a long shot to begin with. I may consider self-publishing; please let me know what you think!
Number of Worship Services: 113. That sounds like a lot of worship services, and maybe it is. I did a rough estimate of the number of services I’ve probably led in the past 22 years of full-time ministry and I came up with over 4,000. That’s a lot of time leading God’s people in worship. Which is to say, I have the best job in the world.
Number of Sabbaticals: 1. One of the reasons my numbers appear “down” from last year is that I was privileged to receive a four-week sabbatical from Oak Hills Church last July. (I am extremely grateful to my church family for such an extravagant gift.) It was a relatively short but significant time for me to connect deeply with my family and recharge my batteries. One would consider 22 years of continuous full-time ministry a long time, and I think it is. But life is a marathon, not a sprint. And I do believe that the best is yet to come.
2013 and Beyond: I’m hoping to kick off the next year with the new CD, pursue publishing one of my titles, and there’s a music tour being planned for southeast Asia next fall. We’re also very excited to be marrying off our son, Justin, to a beautiful young lady from a beautiful family. God continues to surprise us!
[Photos: From top to bottom. (1) A hilarious caricature of me leading worship, drawn by my son, Justin. He does his best work on the backs of church bulletins; (2) Leading an all-day worship workshop during my trip to the Philippines; (3) Playing at the grand opening of a spa in Rocklin. Thank you, thank you very much.; (4) Speaking at the Boise Creative Church Conference. Artist Dean Estes is working behind me as I speak. (5) The new album cover, Unraveled, designed by Keith Elliott; (6) Leading worship at Oak Hills during the Advent season. Sweet.]
The act of celebrating Communion has always been unspeakably, mysteriously meaningful to me, even as a young boy receiving the Eucharist in the Catholic mass. Kneeling on the cold marble floor of the sanctuary, the taste of the round white wafer melting on my tongue, listening to the monsignor’s words, “The body of Christ.” These were indelible moments for me, simple actions where I came face to face with the mystery of our faith. We enter into a sacramental action that has been repeated millions of times over thousands of years, all the way back to that ancient moment when Jesus sat up at the table to share the bread and cup with his closest friends. It was a highly intimate act, an amazing act of self-disclosure, as Jesus reveals his death in light of the most sacred of Jewish celebrations, the Passover meal. As he served the bread, “this is my body,” and the wine, “this is my blood, given up for you,” he revealed that he was the final sacrifice, the Perfect Lamb, whose blood would guard the doorposts of our homes, whose life would carry the sins of all mankind.
And this is why it struck me so deeply again, as we began our Advent season. I’ve often thought that the act of incarnation—the act of God the Son eternal entering into the limited dimensions of our universe and clothing himself in fragile flesh—had to be more of a shock to Jesus than even dying on the cross. Think about that. He goes from infinite to finite, from Almighty God to helpless swaddling newborn, from timelessness to the ever-fleeting now, from the embrace of the perfect community of the Trinity to the utter aloneness of human being. No creature can fathom what that must have been like.
These were my thoughts as we celebrated the Lord’s Supper, and we repeated Jesus’ declaration, “This is my body,” and “this is my blood.” For the act of incarnation, the act of becoming this baby in a manger, was God’s ultimate act of self-disclosure. For we can truly know the nature and heart of God only through Jesus, who was God in the flesh, Emmanuel, God with us. When Jesus was born, it was as if God were saying, “This is my body, and this is my blood, given up for you.” It is only through the humanity of Jesus that we can fully know the nature of the Divine.
So the table represents a bridge between the birth, God’s revelation through incarnation, and the cross, God’s revelation through resurrection. The bread and the cup point backwards to the promise of Abraham and his descendents who were saved from Pharaoh. And they also point forward to the cross and the empty tomb and ultimately to our life in Christ now and into eternity.
Beautiful, metaphorical, artistic, the Lord’s Supper is an intersection of mysteries—Christmas and Easter, incarnation and resurrection, the Promise and the Fulfillment.
[Note: artwork by June Wright. Please visit this talented artist's website here.]
[Note: This is an excerpt from a recent sermon I presented on "Engagement in Worship." To listen to the full message, see the Oak Hills Media page for September 30, 2012. I hope it speaks to you.]
The “heart” of the worshiper is a key aspect of worship, but there seems to be some confusion about what that means. These days, the word “heart” is associated with emotion, experience, and sincerity. In other words, if someone says they mean something “with all my heart,” what they imply is that they really, really mean it in an emotional way. Unfortunately, worship that’s dependent only on our efforts to be increasingly sincere can sometimes be manipulative. We’ve all seen “rah rah” moments when emotions can get whipped up for sporting events, political rallies, and even infomercials.
I’ve heard many stories from people about churches where the worship was fervent and spirited and seemingly alive, but behind the scenes, people never lived their lives consistent with the God they worshiped. You see, if all we focused on in worship was emotive sincerity, we can disregard the larger issue of living the life of a worshiper, and concentrate instead on just having experiences of worship.
But the heart has a fuller and more biblical meaning—as the core of an individual. Dallas Willard describes it as that part, “where decisions and choices are made for the whole person.” If this is true, that the heart also includes decisions and choices, then a worshiping heart is one that worships not just as an emotion, but more so as an act of the will.
I was a part of a wedding last weekend. It was a beautiful and moving event, and the climax of the ceremony, as it should be, was the exchanging of vows. Here’s the thing. I’ve been a part of maybe a hundred weddings, and whenever the vows are exchanged, I always restate my vows to my wife silently in my head, kind of a renewing of my commitment to Debbie. As I said, I’ve maybe done this a hundred times over the past 25 years. Because I think it’s important to remind myself continually of the things I’ve committed to, to my wife and before God.
Now when you state your marriage vows to your spouse, you don’t vow to “fall in love.” You vow to “love, honor, and cherish.” In other words, love is more than an emotion. It is more foundationally an act of the will. Think about that. God commands us to love one another, and even our enemies, which is obviously not an emotional love but an act of the will. Certainly love is an emotion, but faithfulness redefines love to be much more than that. It is also a decision, an act of selflessness, something you express even when you don’t feel like it.
So we choose to love our spouse, or our parents, or our children, or our neighbor, or our co-worker, even when we don’t feel like it. Because the choice is as much an act of love as the love itself. That’s what real love is.
Do you see why this is important? I hear people sometimes talk about the fact that they aren’t “in the mood” to worship. Singing is not “me” they would say. And so they reason they decide that it would be more honest to not sing or come into service later after the singing is over. Or they reason that they don’t feel like raising their hands or clapping, so they decide that it would be more honest to leave their arms hanging. But is that right, really?
Another thing is that this narrow view makes worship simply about our feelings. And we’ve all been in situations where our feelings were manipulated. Just watch any chick flick, and you know what I mean. I watched “The Notebook” once with Debbie. And she’s crying and stuff, and I’m looking at her thinking, you know this is a made up story, right? These people don’t really exist. Feelings are extremely important. Feelings can also be wrong.
When we equate worship only with our feelings, then we’ve made the definition of worship—and the definition of love—too small.
Heart worship begins with a choice. It begins as an act of the will. And if heart worship is an act of the will, then it doesn’t matter that much if we are “in the mood” or not. It doesn’t matter if we like the style or the song or the tempo. All of that becomes subservient to the purpose of meeting God and fully responding to the Truth of His Story, to His action and presence in our lives. All of that becomes subservient to simply giving God glory. We worship because He is worthy.
This is a subtle but important distinction. Instead of waiting for the worship leader or the rock band or the laser lights and fog machines to rev us up emotionally for worship, we instead choose to worship—assuming a posture of obedience and surrender—as an act of our will. Then we can more honestly allow the Holy Spirit to be the One who stirs us up emotionally. Emotions are important, but emotions should follow the will, not the other way around.
So, let me say this more bluntly. It doesn’t matter that much if you don’t like to sing or if you like the song. God is worthy of our worship, so maybe you should sing. It doesn’t matter if you feel like it. Biblical love compels you to choose it.
An act of the will in worship will look different for each person. Maybe it looks like a premeditated decision to set your alarm 15 minutes earlier so you can be at church early. Maybe it looks like a deliberate slowing of your Sunday, you know, really applying the concept of Sabbath to the entire day, so that you are not encumbered by agendas or expectations or hurry. Maybe it looks like a willful surrendering of your body and soul and mind during the worship service, so that hands are raised, voices are loud, without encumbrance or holding back.
Now let me flip around and talk about the emotional part of heart worship. Because I don’t want you to get the impression that we want to downplay emotional worship. Entirely the opposite. Sometimes when I stand here and lead you in worship, and I feel the smile of God upon us, I just feel like exploding. And then I open my eyes and see you guys, and, well, I just want to light a fire under your seats. I want you to move, and raise your hands, and sing really loud, and jump up and down. I want to unleash the inhibitions that keep you from declaring God’s greatness. I want to let loose your emotions! I want to encourage you to let your bodies show the joy that your mouths are singing about.
Unfortunately, I think we may be holding ourselves back. We may be inhibiting ourselves from the fullness of worship that comes from our emotions. And I take responsibility for that, being your worship leader here at Oak Hills. Frankly, I have my own inhibitions and ego and stuff that I have to deal with every time I get up here to lead you all. So we all have some learning to do in the area of emotive worship.
There’s a story in the Bible that bears mentioning here. In the Book of Second Samuel, The Ark of the Lord was physically being moved back into Jerusalem, and King David, the poet warrior, the beloved of God, was pretty stoked about it. As it was being carried in, David gets so excited that he rushes out into the crowd, and right there in the middle of the street, starts doing the moonwalk. He is a dancing fool for the Lord. Now, his wife, Michel, who is the daughter of Saul, becomes disgusted by this undignified display of elation, and she calls him out on it. But David doesn’t care. He turns back to Michel and says this: “I will celebrate before the Lord. I will become even more undignified than this, and I will be humiliated in my own eyes.” (2 Samuel 6:21-22 NIV)
David, King of all Israel, is not afraid to express the fullness of His joy before the Lord and in front of people. He understood when being “undignified” in the eyes of man was actually the most proper and worshipful act He could express to God in that moment. “Hallel” is a Hebrew word for “praise,” and it actually has the implication that we are expressing ourselves foolishly before God. It’s where we get our expression, “Hallelujah,” which if you look at it that way, can be interpreted to mean, “Crazy praise to You, Yahweh.”
You see, there’s a great deal of vulnerability in worship. When we are truly worshiping God, there is a sense that there is no longer any pretending. We are exposed, revealed, uncovered, to our Holy God. When we are able to embrace our vulnerability before God, it is there where we can learn to accept more and more God’s great love for us.
King David understood—we are God’s undignified people. Maybe it’s time we started acting a bit more like that.
Stylistically, our aspirations for worship in the church today seem to be less about transcendence and more about spectacle. On one hand, there is a growing tendency in the modern church to aspire to fog machines, computer-controlled lighting, splashes of fast-moving multimedia on large high-definition screens, and a guitar-driven rock band amplified with jet-engine decibel level sound systems. At the other extreme, large robed choirs and splashy cantatas are the highlight of a traditional style that can get lost in its own anachronism. And the climax of both of these services is not a celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which is by definition a celebration of the mystery, but the sermon. Fueled by centuries of modernism, the sermon has unwittingly become the undaunted forum for explaining away the mysteries of our faith.
Now, I’m not an opponent of any of these things per se. But in the midst of the spectacle, we are in danger of a missing an experience with one of the greatest aspects of worship: mystery. Because worship is an encounter with the Holy, the Infinite, the Revered, the Unknowable. Without the language of beauty and the arts to help us, without sacred space that allows us to meet God on His terms and not ours, without the humility that comes from realizing that God is beyond our understanding, we lack the vocabulary to speak deeply into the mystery. And I think our souls desperately thirst for experiences of mystery. We thirst for intimacy with an unfathomable God. Ultimately, what we seek is spiritual transcendence, not artistic titillations.
As a worship leader, I interrupted my worship service recently. At the beginning of the service, I challenged my congregation to internally search their feelings in answering this question: Do you really believe that the God of creation, the God who exists in Tri-Unity—the God who spins the atoms and sustains the universe by his active will—is actually here in this place? Do we believe that This Very Big God is here among us? And if the answer was, “yes,” why aren’t we all on our faces, trembling in holy fear, hands raised and heads bowed, slain where we stand? But Annie Dillard said it better:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”
Worship is an attempt to dwell with the Mystery. And such brushes with the Mystery will change us.
Most of my readership primarily knows me as an author, blogger, pastor, songwriter. But I’ve had the privilege of also being a working musician for over 25 years as well. This is the non-glamorous side of music, making money by playing bars and clubs, working late nights in recording studios, playing weddings and corporate events. It helps pay the bills. And for that, I am grateful.
Some artists see this as being beneath them. They want to make their own music on their own terms. And I understand this. I want the same for myself as well. But my perspective is that being a professional musician is honorable work (at least with the people I work with and for), and I approach the craft in the same way that a master plumber or electrician might display professionalism and integrity with their customers.
There’s also a spiritually formative aspect to this too. I make myself a servant, not only to the audience I play for, but also to the music that I perform. If I’m playing a John Mayer tune for instance, my individuality will poke out, but I still want to maintain the musical integrity of the song. When I work on someone’s CD project, I want to ensure that the songs are a true reflection of the artist and not myself. In other words, it’s not about me.
Equally formative, I’ve also learned over time to have passion for my music, while not allowing an indifferent audience to shake my sometimes fragile psyche. And this is harder to do than one thinks.
Recently, something happened to me that has happened only one other time. I was playing solo piano at a local upscale restaurant which was then only nominally busy. A middle-aged couple at the corner table, I suspected were probably divorced and dating. A young married couple being treated out by the in-laws. A quiet and respectful family having dinner before their movie started. A group of boisterous young twenty-somethings in the center of the room, possibly celebrating a birthday. It seemed a typical Friday night crowd—proper and possibly a bit apathetic.
Two hours into the three hour set. This is when my inner voice begins doubting. I think to myself, am I playing the kind of music they want? Am I getting a little pitchy? Is anyone even listening? Do they even care? Why am I here anyway? It is the existential angst of the piano bar artist.
And suddenly a lady rouses me from my inner dialogue. Approaching me tentatively, she remarks, “I really like your playing. You’re very gifted. I want you to have this.” And she sets a hundred dollar bill in my tip jar.
I re-learned a lesson in that moment. You never know who is listening. You never know who is paying attention. You never know who you are affecting by what you do.
And this is why it is so important to always be who you are. And as they say, who you really are is who you are when no one is looking.
Who am I really? Author, blogger, pastor, songwriter? That’s just what I do. Who I am is a servant—to my audience (whether I think they’re listening or not) and to the music I perform. But mostly to God, through my life and through my art.
[Note: If you liked this blog, I have an older blog that talks a little about Piano Bar Philosophizing. I encourage you to check it out.]
Tinged with an appealing Celtic-influenced sound that blends folk, pop, and a little rock, Amy is at once an instrumentalist, folk and pop singer, worship leader, minister, and artist.
Graduating with a music degree from Wheaton College, Amy’s career began as a recording artist with Sparrow Records as well as being a staff writer at Birdwing Music. She has opened for Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald, performed for the NRB and Praise Gathering, and has worked with Tommy Sims, Norbert Putnam, Brian Hardin, and Peter York. Amy has recorded thirteen records for six companies and has been nominated for a Dove Award. Amy has been featured on the Moody Broadcast Network, GLC-TV worldwide, Focus on the Family, and tours North America speaking and singing in churches, universities, and conferences, including The Voice of the Martyrs and Dee Brestin Ministries.
Since 2004, Amy has been passionate about supporting Christians who have been persecuted worldwide in restricted nations through The Voice of the Martyrs. She has contributed to two recordings featuring Gracia Burnham and several Christian artists to bring awareness of those who have been persecuted for their faith in Jesus.
Her latest album is a sixteen-song vocal CD called “The God Of All Comfort.” Her label, Audio Abbey Records, is also under contract with Zondervan for a 10 song version of the same CD which is available with best selling author Dee Brestin’s women’s study guide based on her book with the same title.
Amy is married to producer Gary Wixtrom, and they currently live in Nashville with their ten year-old daughter Elise. I’ve worked with them a number of times, and I find them to be a thoroughly delightful family. For more information, please check out their website.
Amy, along with husband Gary, will be performing and leading worship at my home church, Oak Hills in Folsom, for our Maundy Thursday Service on April 5 at 7 PM (celebrating the Lord’s Supper) and our Good Friday Service on April 6 at noon (commemorating the acts of the cross). Both of these intimate events will be observed in-the-round, and we invite you to join us. I’ll be joining them on the grand piano for the worship. In addition, they will be leading worship at the upcoming Voice of the Martyrs Conference at Oak Hills Church on Saturday, April 14.
When the movie blockbuster, The Matrix, was first released over a decade ago, it created quite a stir, not only because of it’s cutting-edge special effects and graphic novel sophistication, but because it was a provocative blending of mythology, eastern mysticism, Christian themes, philosophy, science fiction, and a fist full of kung fu. Blending the hero’s journey with the messiah story, it can be viewed as both religious and atheistic, intellectual and exploitative, profoundly thought-provoking and shallow fun. And at the heart of the story lies the ultimate question: What is the truth about the nature of life?
It is one of the fundamental questions. And in a word where truth, like beauty, is considered to be a relative thing, it is ironic that the heart of man still searches for some semblance of what is genuinely, objectively, and ultimately True.
The Bible had a word for those whose job was to tell the truth about God and about life, past, present, and future. The word is “prophet.” And unfortunately, the word conjures up many unintended meanings. There’s a lonely and quite misunderstood bearded man in the desert, yelling at people to repent. Or maybe a fortuneteller bearing a jeweled turban who promises to tell you the future. Or the man wearing the sandwich board yelling at the corner, bringing the annoying message that the end is near. Any modern use of the term requires a sense of explanation or apology.
To say that something is prophetic is to imply that we can predict the future. And there is obviously Biblical precedent for this (e.g., the books of Isaiah or Revelation). But practically speaking, the prophetic gift has more to do with helping people see things as they really are. Prophets clarify, illuminate, and reveal. Like Morpheus offering Neo the red pill, the prophet offers to help people see the larger reality, the Kingdom perspective. In the Bible, the role of the prophet was to remind people of God’s sovereignty and His direction for us, a voice from outside the babel that calls us back, a champion of all that is Godly when we have lost our way. Prophets remind us of what is real and important. Prophets are Truth tellers.
Such is the role of the artist as well. If we are doing our job, if we are creating art that is noteworthy and unique, then our art implies a perspective of life that stands apart from the norm. Our art pulls back the curtain, offers a different point of view, provokes thought and feeling. This should be even more true for the Christian artist as well, for our work provides a perspective of life that not only stands apart from the norm, but is grounded in the eternal.
In the collection, Intruding Upon the Timeless, author Gregory Wolfe explains:
“Like the biblical prophet, the artist is often an outsider, one who stands apart and delivers a challenge to the community. The prophets of old employed many of the same tricks used by writers and artists: lofty rhetoric, apocalyptic imagery, biting satire, lyrical evocations of better times, and subversive irony. To be sure, the true prophet came not to proclaim his own message, but that of the Lord.”
“The artist and the prophet bring far things near; they somehow bring the urgencies of the eschatological realm into the mundane world of the here and now.”
The Christian artist must be a prophet, in that in some small way, our art should reveal the greater Truth. And that is easier said than done. So if I may, please indulge me a two contrasting examples.
Thomas Kinkade is arguably the most recognizable Christian painter today. His work—revealing pastoral scenes, beautiful landscapes, pastel cottages and a romanticized view of days gone by—has become extremely popular over the last few decades, particularly with evangelical Christians. Stylistically, he is a master of drawing light from the canvas, allowing us to see these scenes through softened, dreamy lenses. Dubbed, “The Painter of Light,” Kinkade is not only an accomplished artist, but is also a successful book author, businessman, and prolific philanthropist. Many people, Christians in particular, have purchased his prints, collectibles, themed home furnishings, and even crafts and puzzles. His popularity, I suspect, is much more than simple technique; his true talent may lie in his ability to answer the soul’s yearning for some semblance of otherworldly peace.
The question is this: Can the body of his work be considered redemptive? Does it reflect a Christian worldview? Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Kinkade explains of his work, “I like to portray a world without the Fall.” And it is true that he masterfully expresses an idyllic pastel world of serenity and peacefulness in his works. But consider a world without the fall. Is that consistent with the Christian meta-narrative—creation, fall, and redemption? Is it true to the Story? While Kinkaide may convey a noble sentiment, it is more than nostalgic wishing. It is theologically wrong.
The Gospel is that God is in the business of rescuing a world that is broken and lost and doomed without Him. The worldview that Kinkade so carefully cultivates in his body of work is a world without brokenness, transgression, conflict, sin. And in a world without the fall, the blood of Jesus is, in Gregory Wolfe’s words, “rendered superfluous.” Grace becomes unnecessary where there is no sin. Redemption is nonessential, for there is nothing from which to be redeemed.
In Kinkade’s works, we find ourselves sampling the harmless and counterfeit titillations we talked about earlier in the theme park. Artist Edward Knippers states, “The believer’s art should be rooted in the rich soil of believing that humanity is far worse off than we think and God’s grace extends far beyond what we can imagine.” Art, if it aspires to Truth and beauty, should have at its core, redemption. For Grace is God’s loving response to the Fall.
So while Kinkade taps into a longing that is true, what he depicts in response to this longing is not. The otherworldly peace that is the soul’s true yearning is called shalom. Shalom is a Jewish word that implies “the reality and hope of wholeness for the individual, within societal relations, and for the whole world.” More than simply the lack of war, shalom refers to God’s pervasive will upon a place in truth, justice, benevolence, and reign. This is why Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. This is the true yearning of our hearts, to find redemption in a broken world that desperately needs Jesus, the Prince of Shalom.
A second example of a Christian artist is C. S. Lewis, apologist (arguably the greatest of his time), scholar, historian, radio personality, and author. He is probably best known for a series of children’s books entitled The Chronicles of Narnia. As these books were of the fantasy genre, they are, by definition, not true in the sense that it is based on historical reality. But the question still remains: Does his work point people to the greater story of God?
Much has been written about The Chronicles of Narnia, so a deep analysis is unnecessary. We understand it is not allegorical in nature, though the central character, Aslan, is definitely a nod to Christ. But there is nothing that necessarily points to the Gospel. There are no four spiritual laws, no mention of the church, no overt symbols of the Christian faith (and in fact, many pagan symbols instead). There are, however, recurring themes: Good and evil, the nature of man, the ugliness of sin, the need for justice, the power of forgiveness. The books model love, integrity, family, loyalty, grace. They are truthful to the complexities of selfishness, avarice, pride, deception, death. The overarching worldview that undergirds all of the stories is that there really is absolute Truth in a chaotic world. And the overarching message is that the world has been somehow marred by sin, and it is through the benevolence of an all mighty power that we will be redeemed.
Are the Chronicles of Narnia consistent with the Christian meta-narrative, the Big Story? Is it consistent with Truth? Is his work prophetic in some way? I think the answer is yes.
How does the artist become a Truth teller? Philip Graham Ryken shares in his short treatise, Art for God’s Sake, his view:
“Art communicates truth in various ways. Sometimes it tells a story, and the story is true to human experience—it is an incarnation of the human condition. Sometimes art tells the truth in the form of propositions. This is especially characteristic of literary art forms, which speak with words. Art can also convey emotional and experiential truth, and it can do this without words, as is often the case with music. But whatever stories it tells, and whatever ideas or emotions it communicates, art is true only if it points in some way to the one true story of salvation—the story of God’s creation, human sin, and the triumph of grace through Christ.”
The mixed media artist paints a tree in the forest, strong and sinewy, timeless like eternity. Beneath the tree, real leaves and twigs affixed to the canvas form a foreground, reminding us of God’s fingerprint upon creation. Art reveals Truth.
The photographer captures the image of an orphan girl, wrapped in the tragedy of her generational poverty. Clothed in rags and powdered in dirt, her glancing eyes and her guarded smile disclose the image of God within her. Art reveals Truth.
A choreographer creates an evocative piece with seven dancers using east Indian music. Through movement, she tells the story of the Dalit, the people of the lowest caste system in Indian society. Known as the Untouchables, there is still extreme prejudice and suppression placed upon these people. Though not a word is spoken in the dance, we begin to see an inner beauty in these people, and in spite of their condition, they are still loved by God. Art reveals Truth.
A songwriter sings a simple love song, not of sensual romance, but of a deeper kind. Through the poetry of his lyrics, he reflects on forgiveness offered and accepted, a relationship broken but restored. Once again, art reveals Truth.
A missionary assembles a group of artists—musicians, graphic artists, sound and lighting and video technicians—and presents a series of concerts featuring American music in a largely non-Christian European city. It draws the music fan, the bored, the curious. As the concert unfolds, the Gospel begins to shine—not just through the music they play or the words they sing or the visuals they project, but also in the way they interact with one another and with the audience, and in the conversations that surely follow a concert like this. Those in attendance are impressed not only by the quality of the music, but the quality of the people. Art reveals Truth.
As artists of faith, we must offer our audience the red pill. Our art must ultimately magnify, colorize, illuminate, and heighten the perception of Truth. And that Truth should captivate us, reframe our senses, compel us to action, and inspire us to something Greater. In this sense, it is fitting that the arts can be an expression of that Real Truth. And when that happens, the artist is a prophet, in the truest sense of the word.
By the early 1930s, trumpet virtuoso Louis Armstrong had already established himself as the definitive master of this infant musical genre called “jazz.” His fluid, emotive, powerful style and uniquely innovative playing had already become the benchmark for all jazz performers of his era. His trumpet solos were beyond expressive—they were conversational, charismatic, prodigious. But he had not yet become the household name he would one day be, and touring between Los Angeles and Chicago, he began a three-day run at the Hotel Driscoll in Austin, Texas. It was the fall of 1931.
Among those in attendance that evening was a white teenage boy in his first year at the University of Texas named Charlie Black. Black didn’t know anything about Armstrong and knew little about jazz; in fact, he was at the Driscoll simply to meet girls. But that was before Armstrong began to play.
Black would later write of his experience, “He played mostly with his eyes closed, letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never before existed. He was the first genius I’d ever seen. It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year-old southern boy seeing genius for the first time in a black person. We literally never saw a black then in anything but a servant’s capacity. Louis opened my eyes wide and put to me a choice. ‘Blacks’, the saying went, ‘were in their place.’ But what was the place for such a man, and the people from which he sprung?”
Twenty-two years later, at the cusp of the American Civil Rights movement, the Supreme Court was hearing the now historic Brown v. Board of Education. The NAACP Legal Defense was assembling their case in an effort to convince the court that segregation on the basis of race was unconstitutional. The person who wrote the legal brief upon which the case was grounded was Charles L. Black, now a distinguished Professor of Constitutional Law at Yale University, and senior advisor to Thurgood Marshall.
Black’s encounter with the music of Louis Armstrong was not simply memorable. For there was more coming out of Armstrong’s trumpet than music. What was emanating from his horn was a greater Truth about the world. Though young Charlie Black did not fully understand it at the time, history shows that Armstrong’s music changed his life—and ours—forever.
[Note: The five unnamed examples above are actually all real-life friends of mine. You know who you are.]
Intersections: Faith and the Arts Conference 2012 will be held this year on Saturday, March 17, at Oak Hills Church in Folsom. This conference, featuring local artists and speakers, is intended to further the dialogue between faith and the arts. That dialogue includes both connecting artists of different disciplines together, and also connecting them deeper with the spiritual and theological implications of their art.
I will be a speaker at this event, as well as a wide variety of other artists, and there will be many opportunities to connect and be inspired. Any artist of faith will gain insight and encouragement from this event.
This year’s artists include:
Alan Koshiyama, an award-winning composer with an impressive resume of feature film, television, video game (can you say “Pac-Man Party”?), and national commercial work with clients including Disney, Time Warner, various national networks, and video games. Variety Magazine calls Koshiyama’s music “evocative.” Koshiyama also serves as Worship Music Director at Adventure Christian Church in Roseville.
Steve Scott, British expat, finished art school in the mid 1970s and then moved to US, initially to record an album with Larry Norman. He ended up moving to northern California to join the staff of arts-friendly Warehouse Christian Ministries, and since that time has released ten albums of music, published three small press books of poetry and two books of collected essays on art theory. He directs CANA (Christian Artists Networking Association), which has helped organize arts conferences in SE Asia and Eastern Europe.
Susan Miller has been a part of Sacramento’s theater and broadcasting community for over 20 years. Her broadcast experience ranges from on air and production radio work in country, pop and smooth jazz formats as well as voice-over and on-camera work for area television stations. She now divides her time doing commercial VO with her own production company, and house managing several area theaters including Sacramento Theater Company and California Musical Theater’s Music Circus. The “productions” she is most proud of are her 4 great kids who have inherited her love of music and the theater.
Katie Albert is a talented photographer, graphic artist, and occasional helicopter pilot. She will be sharing her experiences and photography from her recent missions trip to Manipur, India, in partnership with one of Oak Hills’ ministry partners, the Nehemiah Project, which assists local pregnant women affected by HIV and runs the Nehemiah Children’s Home.
Yvette Johnson is a dance major at UC Santa Barbara. She has been dancing since the age of six and trained at Northern California Dance Conservatory during high school before moving to Santa Barbara to continue her studies. It was in Santa Barbara where she encountered the presence of God in the dance studios through various relationships with a very special group of dancers. Her dedication to following Jesus and moving for the Lord provides the basis for her testimony at Intersections.
The Intersections Conference features a variety of expressions including painting, photography, dance, and music; breakout sessions in specific areas of the arts; a panel discussion by local experts; and a wonderfully catered gourmet lunch (we believe highly in the culinary arts!). Registration begins at 8:30 AM with our Common Grounds Cafe serving complimentary coffee. Cost for this event is $30 (includes lunch), payable at the door. Please reserve your spot by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org today!
On the first day of class here at BCCL, I had each student write a short pop-quiz essay entitled, “What is worship?” I got a lot of varied responses from them, and it was enlightening to see their collective perspective regarding this very big and deep word. On the last day of class, I surprised them and gave them the very same pop-quiz: “What is worship?” The point was to see how their perspective of worship has changed over the last two weeks of study.
In these last two weeks, we’ve learned theology, philosophy, practices. We’ve discussed Trinitarian, ecclesiological, sacramental, and dialogical aspects of worship. We’ve broken down Scripture, from Genesis to the Gospels to the epistles. We’ve also gotten very practical and discussed service flow, song lyrics and selection, musical arranging, and other practical considerations. We talked about the calling of the worship leader, and the qualifications of the worship team. And we’ve worshiped a lot in class too, to practically put action to our words. We’ve traveled quite a journey of discovery together. So the answers to the question were considerably different and thoughtful, even profound.
As a gift to the class, I put on a short mini-concert for them, for which they were very appreciative (I had given them all CDs of my music as well as my book at the beginning of the first class). There were many gifts and well-wishes given to me at the end of our class, and about a million photos were taken (did I mention yet how much Filipinos love taking photos?).
There is one other thing too. After reviewing everything I had taught them, I took a moment and shared with them some of the things that they had taught me. Here are a few reflections, some things my class has taught me.
A Greater Humility. I’ve been teaching worship for the last two weeks. But I have been teaching people whose lives are so completely sold out to Jesus, saints who have paid a tremendous price—persecution, isolation, economic hardship—for the joy of sharing their faith in their own part of the world. They totally love God, and are totally sold out to His Kingdom-purposes. In many ways, through their lives, they have been the ones who have taught me instead. Honestly, I am humbled in their presence.
A Thankful Heart. One of the things that missions trips almost always provide—if your eyes are open to it—is perspective. And traveling to a part of the world that is less advantaged than we are will certainly give you perspective. I think about how amazingly easy life is in America—everything from hot running water to washing clothes to getting coffee—we are simply an over-privileged nation. I think about what hardships people here have to go through just to get to church. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the persecutions—both from family and from society—that they have to go through just to attend an evangelical church. And I contrast that with how easy it is for American Christians to justify staying home on a Sunday morning. We really don’t understand the degree to which we make God our servant. I come away from my experiences here in Legaspi with a renewed spirit of thankfulness, one that doesn’t take for granted our privileges and blessings.
A Bigger Picture. One of the things I continually preach in worship is the idea that our corporate worship activity is an entering in to a larger, continuous worship that extends through time and history, place and geography, and spiritually into the heavens. When we worship as a local church, we join other Christians around the world, the saints through history, the angels and the heavenly realms, and ultimately all of creation in glorifying God. More than just a few moments that start and stop on Sunday morning, worship is a continuous and eternal act that we join into. My time here has been bathed in the act of worship, through constant singing, exclamation, teaching, exhortation, training, fellowship, and even eating! Through it all, I have gotten a much bigger picture of who God is, and what He continues to do to advance His Kingdom in the hearts of people. It has been an exciting thing to see firsthand.
When I first got here, I would lead these people in worship and picture my congregation in Folsom worshiping with them. Now, when I lead worship in Folsom, I will picture my Filipino friends singing and raising hands in worship. It’s a beautiful thing.
A Larger Picture of Myself. My cultural heritage has always been something experienced through my childhood—my parents, extended family, and the Filipino Community I grew up with in Salinas. But now I have a first-hand understanding of the land of my Father and Mother. I’ve experienced a whole lot of the Philippines in my short time here, and it has given me a greater perspective of where I’ve come from.
Though we will be far apart, I will keep these memories and people in my heart wherever I go.
Neither Red Nor Green: Legaspi is a city of almost 800,000 people, yet there is only one stop light in the whole city, and it’s turned off. Believe me when I say driving around here is more than a ride, it’s an adventure.
Funniest Road Sign: “Piglets for sale.”
New Favorite Food: The best thing I ate in a restaurant here (and I’ve eaten a lot of stuff here) is called “Bicol Express,” a local pork dish with coconut milk and red and green peppers. A bit hot, but amazing over white rice. Yum. [BTW I think I put on 5 pounds easy on this trip.]
Our Schtick: One of the common occurrences traveling with Gregg Evans is that when we go to a restaurant, the waiter will always look at me and begin to speak in Tagalog. I’ll give him a sheepish shrug, and then Gregg will begin ordering for us in fluent Tagalog. Freaks the waiters out.
Mayon Volcano: We took advantage of a relatively unrainy day and took a motor tour around the Mayon Volcano, the primary landmark in this area. Known as the most symmetrically formed volcano in the world, it is a marvel of beauty, so much so that any photos pale in comparison. I don’t have the words to express it’s beauty. And that’s on a cloudy day.
Pili Nuts: One of the delicacies of the region, pili nuts are sugared, coated, salted, and buttered. I think I have a half dozen packages of pili nuts, as well as assorted pili nut souvenirs, to take home with me. Sometimes you feel like a nut…
[Top photo: The BCCL Worship and Arts Class of 2012. Second photo: The wonderful staff at Bicol Center for Christian Leadership. I hope to see them again. Third photo: Gregg shares some coinage with some quite disadvantaged local children during our sightseeing trip around the volcano. Fourth photo: My distant cousin, Tony, and I share a meal in Manila after all the fun of ministry is done. This was my first time to meet him. Bottom photo: A view of the Mayon volcano. Startlingly beautiful, beyond words really, even if you can only see the bottom half.]
I find myself at the mid-point of my trip here—and it’s been a very full agenda so far. The Worship & Arts Class I’m teaching is half over, the all-day Worship Team Workshop was well attended, I’ve visited three different church services, and we also squeezed in a trip to Naga to visit a BCCL satellite location. I’ve also been able to experience a “pedi-cab” ride (basically an old Stingray-style bike with a hooded sidecar welded on), a “tricycle” ride (a small motorcycle with sidecar), and a whole host of Filipino dishes and desserts. Details below.
College Group Tonight, I was the guest speaker at the Fifth Anniversary Celebration of YHB (Yeshua Heart Beat), which is a relatively large college group associated with the Albay Bible Community Church. (My topic was “Abiding in God’s Love” From John 15.) There’s an explosion going on among the young people here. There are over 100 students regularly involved in the ABC youth ministry. Engineering, architecture, business, education, and medical students—and they are involved, aware, and alive in Christ. I see them as being among the next generation of Christian leaders here in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the Philippines economy can’t support all the grads coming out of their schools, and many of them are having to take lesser jobs outside of their fields of education. It was exciting being with them and sharing in their joy and passion and fun!
Filipino Worship This morning, I visited Jesus First Christian Ministries, where I experienced an entire worship service in Tagalog. Songs, Scripture, sermon, and even offering was given in Tagalog. Amazingly, I was able to follow along pretty well (due to the occasional word I could pick up, plus the PowerPoint that was in English), and I was even able to sing along with most songs. As we sang, I could picture my home church, Oak Hills, half-way across the world, worshiping as well. It was a very cool thought.
Worship Team Workshop The BCCL rented a large hall right in one of the provincial government buildings in Old Albay for this all-day event, which meant that we were worshiping at one of the seats of local government. (How weird is that!) During this workshop, I lectured briefly about the importance of the worship team, the roles of each of the instruments of the worship team, and then taught them a bunch of songs. Specifically, I took volunteers from the crowd to form a worship band, then taught them one of the newer worship songs. I did this about five times, with different groups each time. I think this was helpful, as they learned new songs to bring back to their congregations, and I was able to show them how I run a rehearsal and put the different elements of the band together. I also took the time to teach worship concepts in the midst of it all too.
The best thing about this workshop was when Mayette Ativo-Bueno (BCCL Director) told me during the break that the teams I was working with were formed with people that had never even met before. She was quick to jump on that, and before the end of the day, she had brought together the worship leaders from all the different churches and formed a twice-a-month gathering for them. Yeah!
Naga Friday, we took a field trip to the city of Naga, which is about two hours drive from Legaspi. BCCL does satellite classes there and has plans to put a facility in the city, to increase their visibility. It’s exciting to see BCCL extend their influence and continue to make a difference in this region.
• When I took the pedi-cab, it was raining like crazy. Mayette and I piled into the cab, and the driver, a man in his sixties wearing shorts and flip-flops, began pedaling us vigorously down the street. I felt like telling the man, “That’s okay, let me pedal for you.” Except that he was in better shape than I was. FYI, the cab drive cost us 20 pesos, or not quite fifty cents.
• It’s amazing what the musicians here are able to play and do with the equipment they have. Our drummers and guitarists would be appalled by the condition of the instruments and sound systems, which don’t age well in this humidity and heat (which is another way of saying that all of us instrumentalists need to be a lot more thankful for what we’ve got!). I have made a mental note to come back next time with a brick of drumsticks and a bag full of tuners and guitar strings.
• The Filipinos love their cameras—especially the young people. I am finding photos of me popping up all over Facebook!
• Today, I missed Justin’s birthday. So I miss him. And on Tuesday, I’ll be missing Valentine’s Day with Debbie and the girls. I’ll have to make it up to them somehow.
• I can’t let a blog go without talking about food somehow. One of the foods that I ate recently was lugaw, a soup made of rice and chicken with hint of ginger. I remember my Mom used to make it for us when we were sick (kind of like chicken soup). It tasted great, and brought back lots of memories, but I couldn’t get over the fact that here, this warm soup is considered a mid-meal snack. I’m also quite bummed that I can’t try one of the desserts of my childhood, halo-halo, because it is made from ice (which I’ve been warned to stay away from).
[Top photo: I lead and instruct different musicians at the Worship Team Workshop. That was a blast! Second photo: They start them young early here. The god son of Pastor Tony Bueno, of Jesus First Christian Ministries, can't keep from whacking away with the drumsticks. Third photo: Another photo of the crowd from the Worship Team Workshop. Fourth photo: I have a late lunch with BCCL Director, Mayette, along with her husband, Pastor Tony. Bottom photo: This is the "tricycle" ride I took back to the apartment. This was truly an adventure for me, as it splashed and splayed through an extremely rainy morning.]
We arrived in Legaspi on Saturday morning, and settled in to a small apartment on site at BCCL. Gregg Evans showed me around the city, as he is an experienced driver, and the school has a car. So on this day, I experienced the local mall (where we purchased food and supplies for our stay), the upscale Embarcadero (a waterfront tourist attraction that seems too ambitious for this area), and the traffic (the main means of transportation seem to be modified low cc motorcycles with questionable sheet metal and tubing sidecars attached. With up to 6 people on one, it looks like a wild ride!).
The local economy is pretty stagnant, and the average person here makes very little money. Gregg informed me that many workers and field hands might make only 100-200 pesos per day (three to five dollars US). There is definitely a social hierarchy here, with the rich, the very rich, and the very poor, with only a small percentage in between. Gregg mentioned to me that one of the signs of improvement in a third world economy is the growth of a middle class. There is little of that here. My first impression of the urban town of Legaspi is that it is not unsimilar to Mexico or South America (outside of the resort areas).
The facilities at BCCL could be considered spartan by our standards, but impressive given what they’ve built over the last ten years. A large room functions as both classroom for BCCL and worship sanctuary for a number of ministries. They offer clerical help to other churches during the week, and have a relatively large Christian library as well. I already sat and observed a college group worship team that was playing a mix of current worship songs.
On Sunday morning, we visited Ligao City Bible Community, a barrio church led by Rufus and his wife Mirasol. Rufus is a good friend of Gregg, one of his first partners in church planting, and Mirasol is a local school teacher. (Some of you old Oak Hillians might remember Rufus from the “Pray for Rufus” bumper stickers we had about 15 years ago.) Together, they faithfully lead this small congregation of mostly young people. I was asked to share music with them, and shared a handful of songs during their service. Funny that I found myself worshiping with them and picturing Oak Hills worshiping at the same time—half a world away, but worshiping the same God. I will be visiting another church this evening which meets at the BCCL main facilities.
I’m grateful for your contributions that allowed me to purchase a portable but quality keyboard for this trip (sounds great and runs on batteries!). My task now is to do final preparations for the class tomorrow night. I’ve discussed my curriculum with Gregg Evans, and am more settled on how I will approach this first day of studies.
Fun facts: Whereas in Manila, where you would find a Starbucks next to a Seattle’s Best next to a doughnut shop, here in Legaspi, we are enjoying instant coffee with no cream (the dairy section of the grocery store did not stock milk, cream, or sour cream—only yogurt and eggs). I’ll never complain about Pastor Kent’s coffee ever again.
[Top photo: Touching down in Legaspi. Second photo: A view of our neighbors from the roof deck of our apartment building at BCCL. Third photo: Me sharing some music at Ligao City Community Bible. Bottom photo: I’m at the grocery store with Close-Up Fire and Ice toothpaste. (This is an inside joke—my model son, Justin, did a commercial for Close-Up which runs in this part of the world.)]
After the typically long plane flight to Manila, I’m happy to announce that in my first 24 hours, I’ve already had a few delicious Filipino meals and visited the local mega-mall twice. That doesn’t sound like much of a trip report, but the first order of business in any missions trip is simply to get one’s bearings. And it’s obvious that I’m not in Kansas anymore.
My hotel is deep in the heart of Manila, surrounded by high rises and towering construction cranes. The beautiful high-end mall stands in contrast to some of the more economically-disadvantaged people I’ve already met. The local newspaper announces the killing of top Al Quaida-linked terrorists by Philippine military forces, as well as the impeachment of a Filipino Chief Justice. The hotel cable shares Filipino music videos, local talk shows, Letterman, and Japanese Anime. Speaking with locals, as well as being briefed by field director Gregg Evans, I am reminded that the Philippines is a contrast of third world socio-economic issues and first world sensibilities and sophistication.
First thing tomorrow, Gregg and I will be catching a plane for Legaspi City, where the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL) is located. I’ll be making that home base as I visit a few churches on Sunday and begin teaching Monday for the following two weeks. I also have an all-day workshop scheduled the following Saturday, and I’ll probably be speaking at a few churches the following Sunday morning and evening. I’ve been encouraged to be flexible as I may be asked to speak or lead worship at other churches and venues as well.
[Top photo: The Manila skyline from our hotel rooftop deck. Bottom photo: Gregg Evans and I having breakfast. Yes, that is fried rice with eggs and pork tocino.]
When I was fourteen years old, my piano professor left me. After having bounced around from teacher to teacher over the course of seven years, my parents found a legitimate, classically-trained instructor to mentor me. Professor Kraus was a big German man with burly hands and a friendly accent who didn’t just teach me—He challenged me, focused me, inspired me, and taught me to love music. He was like Mr. Miyagi, and I was the Karate Kid. But after a few years of intense Bach Paint-The-Fence and Mozart Wax On-Wax Off, he left for a position in Germany. I no longer had someone to play to, play with, play for.
This was a great period of self-discovery for me, as it would be for any teenager. I had to learn to love music on my own, apart from the challenge of learning a curriculum or impressing people. And I also began composing music on my own, which in itself was an expression of my self-discovery.
After a few more years of this, my parents decided it was time I cashed in on my talents, so they encouraged me to begin teaching. They put the word out to several people, and before I knew it, I had a half a dozen five and six year old piano students. At the age of sixteen, I had become a piano teacher. And I took it seriously.
I studied the piano books and learned—beyond playing—how to communicate the language of music. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Basic concepts like quarter notes and measures can be difficult for children who don’t yet understand the concept of fractions or subdividing. And try teaching the concept of a “rest” to a five year old!
Two things. It gave me a great appreciation for those whose vocation is teaching. And it also forced me to understand music theory in ways I couldn’t have gotten any other way.
In a few weeks, I’ll be leaving for a trip to the Philippines to teach a two-week intensive on worship and the arts. I’ll be teaching at the Bicol Center for Christian Leadership (BCCL), a bible school supported by our denomination, the North American Baptist Conference. So over the last month, I’ve been developing the curriculum for eight 3 hour sessions. And I find myself back again—like I was sixteen—relearning the things I’ve learned, so I can teach the things I do.
Trinitarian worship, dialogical worship, Levitical worship, sacramental worship, defining and designing worship, lifestyle worship—I find myself diving into the deep end of the concepts that have molded me over the last 21 years of ministry. Because I need to know it well enough to communicate it to people who haven’t ever received any formal teaching in worship theology. And I’m finding myself being refreshed and re-ignited in the coolness of these deep waters.
So in two weeks, I’ll be setting up a little worship dojo, teaching to worship deeply with both passion and theological understanding. In the words of Mr. Miyagi, “Better learn balance. Balance is key. Balance good, karate good, everything good. Balance bad, better pack up, go home.” I’ll be blogging while I’m there, so stay tuned. And if you’d like to support my trip, please contact me.
One of the cool side benefits of being in arts ministry is that one gets to meet some amazing people. The talented, the anointed, the offbeat, the heartfelt, the deeply thoughtful, the highly creative—I’ve been blessed to meet so many of these people through the years. And blessed also to be able to call so many of these people my friends.
Cate Morris is one of those creatives that fits all of these categories. A worship leader, songwriter, recording artist, and speaker, I met Cate during my second missions trip to Italy, and we’ve been close friends ever since. Living in Alaska with husband, four children, and assorted pets (I think one of them is a moose), Cate teaches and leads worship for churches and conferences nationally and internationally. In particular, she is a passionate and engaging worship leader with a heart for women, international missions, and the spiritual growth of children, as well as a love for the church through worship.
Cate is now releasing her second album, Red Sky, and I’m very excited about it. A follow up to her previous album, From Here, the album takes it’s name from the sailor’s saying, “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning. Red sky at night, sailor’s delight.” (Cate’s husband is an Alaskan commercial fisherman. Yeah, like one of those “Deadliest Catch” guys.) Her songs reflect on the journey through the storms of life, “a prayer for help and a promise of comfort.” I think you’ll love it.
I’ve had the tremendous opportunity to produce this album for her, and it features some other musical partners in crime, including Kent Peterson and Steven Randal.
I highly recommend you purchase both of her CDs at cdbaby.com, and you can download her songs there as well. I also have a handful of CDs that I can get to you directly, if you ask. I also recommend her thoughtful and inspiring blog, Learning to be Present with an Everpresent God.
[PS: Interested in having me produce an album for you? Let's talk.]
Just in time for Christmas, I’ll be releasing a new album entitled SO FAR. This album features 13 songs from my last three albums, A Bridge Called Surrender (2001), If Life Were a Book (2004), and All There Is (2007). These are some of the songs I play live with ML3, (and frankly, I feel emotionally attached to all of them), so I thought it would be fitting to feature them together in this project. Note that this album doesn’t include some of the newer stuff, which I hope to release in a new album in 2012.
One of the things I miss the most about living in this MP3 generation is that there aren’t liner notes anymore. I used to love opening up the LP covers of new albums I’d purchased and pour through the artist’s liner notes, to get some sense of the songwriting journey he or she went through. Also, I want to give credit to all of the musicians I’ve worked with on these projects through the years. So I’m also publishing the liner notes on-line here.
SO FAR will not be available for purchase on-line like my other albums (although you can always download my stuff on CDBaby or iTunes). So please let me know if you’d like to purchase some at $10 each (you can also buy ten for $90). It would make a great Christmas present. Blessings to you this Advent season.
[Special thanks to Keith Elliott for Art Direction/Graphic Design.]
My church has gone through a series of tragedies lately. As of last Thursday, we’ve hosted six separate memorial services for different people in our community, all of whom were dearly loved, most all of whom died before their time. In response, we’ve decided to postpone our planned service programming and simply meet Together for three Sundays and pray, worship, and love one another. Our worship will be unplugged and in-the-round, and we will have a lot of opportunities to touch one another, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
In the midst of this, I am reminded that God is the God of our sorrow as well as the God of our joy. The Bible models a lot of worship that is cast in sorrow, including many of the Psalms, the book of Lamentations, and other passages. We also know that Jesus was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53), well acquainted with grief Himself. And so, in order to properly reflect the condition of our souls before God, we will worship in the shadow of longing, sadness, neediness, and ultimately, our certain hope.
I was reflecting upon this succession of memorial services, and I was so profoundly moved by the testimonies of those who grieved our losses. Our dear friends who have passed lived lives fully immersed in God’s grace, loving and caring for those around them. In their own ways, they each made a marked and eternal difference in the lives of many people. It was inspiring, as well as humbling, as I heard testimony after testimony, funeral after funeral, of those who shared the stories of God in the midst of it all. My only regret the departed couldn’t hear these testimonies with us.
In response, a friend of mine shared a story of an older man he knows. This gentleman, also well acquainted with grief, was known for being complimentary to everyone, encouraging and speaking truth to all around him. When asked about why he was so supportive and cheery, he explained that he had laid down roses on the coffins of many friends over the years. And he realized that he wanted to spend the rest of his life laying roses on the people who were still living.
I’ve found myself thanking people a lot more lately. I’m making room in the cracks of my life to voice my appreciation to others. I’m being more purposeful in speaking words of encouragement. And I’m also taking the time to just stop and be thankful to God for my friends.
Laying roses. Sounds like a good way to live.
Lately, I’ve noticed a number of people starting creative arts groups. For example, there’s a group of creative writers who want to get together to critique and encourage one another. There is a group of visual artists who meet monthly to network and talk deeply about their art and their faith. There’s a group of songwriters who come together regularly to share their songs and sometimes co-write together. There’s a local church that has started a monthly art space where artists of all kinds can come and share their art, and another church that is intending to have a regular artist fellowship. And I’ve been invited to a few new FaceBook groups who want to share thoughts and blogs on the arts and on worship. I think this trend is quite encouraging, as the dialogue of faith and the arts becomes a more natural part of the evangelical church.
There are a lot of advantages to joining one of these groups. In the context of Christian community, artists can find encouragement, constructive criticism, discipleship, affirmation, and acceptance. However, there are a variety of pitfalls that happen when you attempt this. After all, we are humans, and we all carry the baggage and ego and myopia of humanity within us.
Art is so many things: On one edge of the spectrum, it is a deeply personal expression of the self and a way in which we interpret and recreate the world God made. As artists, we intend to express the human condition and seek to make sense out of it. On the other edge, art can be a self-promoting, self-gratifying, self-anesthetizing thing that feeds one’s ego and false-self. Of course, that’s not who we aspire to be.
So when we get together with other artists within the format of a cooperative group like a writer’s collective, songwriter group, or arts guild, there is this dance that ends up happening, where everyone tries to find their place, minimize criticism, manage appearance, and promote oneself (without appearing to self-promote). This is natural and human. And quite imperfect.
I’d like to suggest a few rules of engagement for helping creative arts groups function. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it does come from experience.
• Remember Who You Are In Christ. It goes without saying that our art is an expression of our truest self, and in that way, our fingerprints are all over what we create. At the same time, our identity, (i.e,, who we really are), shouldn’t be tied to our work. Although my art is my personal expression, I’ve learned that my ability to write is not tied to my true identity, which is in Christ. To truly understand this first one is to free oneself from those feelings of jealosy, inadequacy, envy, self-loathing, etc. Of course, this is an incredibly difficult thing to do. However, knowing this allows one to receive both criticism and accolades in a Christ-like manner, as well as keep a Kingdom perspective in all you do. In other words, take God seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously.
• All Criticism Must be Christ-Centered. If you’re in a group that encourages mutual criticism (and you should be), make sure that your constructive criticisms are truthful, grace-filled, and Christ-centered. Your goal—when constructive criticism is solicited from others—should always be to encourage someone toward Christ-likeness and really great art (in that order). So be truthful, but be gracious.
There is a flip side. Often times, an artist’s request for constructive criticism is actually a plea for affirmation. Many people really don’t want to know what others think of them; they simply want people to affirm what they already think of themselves. As Christians living in community with other artists, your request for criticism really must be honest in that you are willing to accept the truthful feedback of your peers. And it is worth it—iron sharpens iron.
There is also the category of unsolicited criticism. I find this often in the comment section of blogs, where people who really have little understanding of the subject or knowledge of the author, will feel free to share their often negative opinions about any given subject. The anonymity of these blogs seems to give people permission to be rude, spiteful, and verbose. In a word: Don’t.
• Don’t Use the Group Primarily to Promote Yourself. Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to promote yourself appropriately as an artist. But don’t use your arts group primarily for this purpose. We have a tendency to hide behind our “Christianity” in our self-promotion. I am so very tired of people who post FaceBook requests for prayer when all they are really doing is advertising or thinly-veiled bragging. (For example, “Please pray for me as my band plays the main stage in front of 5000 people at Super-Duper Christian Conference tonight.”) If you really want to be truthful with your art, you need to put away the image management and the veiled self-promotion.
Here’s a good way to avoid this. Promote others.
• Remember That our Art is a Byproduct of our Spiritual Growth. As an artist, one’s primary goal should not be the affirmation of one’s work. While we all crave the affirmation and respect of our peers, our primary goal should really be spiritual growth. We need to pay close attention to how we are growing our souls through our art. Our artistry should then be the byproduct of our spiritual formation in Christ. This is an extremely important and foundational principle that all Christ-following artists should understand. I should know, it’s taken me 20 years to get it!
• Let People Into Your Life. Some artists have a tendency to be loners. They paint alone in their lofts, compose alone in their bedroom studios, write alone at their computers. But being alone is not God’s intention for us. He created us for community, to be with Him and to be with others. If you are a part of an artist group, make it a point to engage personally and fully. Collaborate on arts projects. Share coffee and ideas. Co-write songs together. Know and be known, artistically, personally, and spiritually. Be the church to one another.
A series of flashbacks tell the story. Nine at night. Washing the extra dishes that wouldn’t fit in the dishwasher. A glass exploding in my hand. Blood spurting furiously on the counter, in the sink, down the drain. Driving to Urgent Care, a dish towel wrapped around my arm. Eleven stitches and a tetanus shot. And then the medical prognosis: No piano playing for two weeks.
Sitting in the examination room, feeling the dull tug of sutures around my thumb, I tried to corral the thoughts bouncing around my brain. I recalled the eight different gigs and rehearsals I had lined up over the next two weeks that would have to be cancelled or reworked. I recalled the different projects at home and at work that I could no longer work on. I recalled a conversation I had over twenty years ago with my father, who confessed to me that he had made me right-handed, though I had left-handed tendencies as a child.
Then there are the hundreds of questions I would inevitably face over the next few days. “What happened to your hand, Manuel?” Which of course obligates me to be creative with my responses: “Shark bite. A big shark. Actually, a gang of big sharks. Wearing leather jackets.” Thankfully, I am married to an amazing woman who knows the proper amount of self-aware wife doting necessary to keep me happy.
It was early the next morning—faced with actually getting ready for work with one hand—that I began to see this as an opportunity to practice what I preach regarding the arts. Art is defined, in part, by the limitations imposed upon it. A painting is defined, in part, by the size of the canvas. A film is defined, in part, by the camera, the story, the location. And a solo piano composition is defined, in part, by the number of fingers one has on one’s hands.
I remember someone explaining once that the hardest thing to write when authoring a story is the first word. Because once you commit to that first word, you’ve narrowed the possibilities of that story. The first word, first phrase, first sentence, first paragraph, first chapter—every word further limits what is possible, until there can only be an ending.
So all art is defined by the limitations of the particular art form of that art. Those who are great at their art have simply learned to embrace the limitations.
So, bandage in hand, I am embracing the limitations. I am rediscovering my left-handedness: Putting on contact lens, eating with a fork, doodling with a pencil, taking out the garbage. I am surrendering to my self-reliance: relying on others to play instruments, letting others move things for me, leading worship far away from the comfort of my piano, with only a microphone and my voice. And I am deliberately slowing myself down: giving myself more time to get ready in the morning, to eat meals, to type on my computer, to brush my teeth, to live life. In short, the eleven stitches in my hand have become a spiritual discipline that is bringing me before God.
The truth is, we all have limitations. Even our humanity is, by definition, a limitation. But it is also a wondrous and mysterious gift. And embracing our limitations—and understanding them as the gifts that they are—is simply one more step toward spiritual maturity.
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I’ll be speaking as a clinician at The Worship Conference 2011 at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California, on Saturday, April 9, 2011. They just sold out, so if you aren’t signed up, I guess you’re out of luck. However, if you are signed up for this conference, please be sure to attend my workshop at the Breakout Session 3 (right after the General Session with main speaker Bob Kilpatrick). Here is a synopsis of what I’ll be speaking on:
Creativity & Faith (Saturday, 2:15 PM) “Why are we creative? What makes us compose, paint, write, film, act, and dance? And how does God receive our artistic expressions? Manuel Luz practically discusses the crucial necessity of understanding the convergence of faith and the arts, the nature of creativity, and the relationship between the artist and God.”
Personally, I love giving this workshop, because I love seeing the imaginary light bulbs that start turning on above people’s heads as we start to get a sense of God’s perspective on the arts. Here are three things that seem to always generate a lot of controversy, discussion, and interest:
• Beauty is an objective quality, not a subjective one. We have bought into the humanism/relativism tenet that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But beauty is a quality of a thing independent of how it is perceived. In other words, beauty is a quality of the object, not a quality bestowed by the person experiencing it. This is a crucial concept to understand, because beauty points to God. More specifically, I contend that beauty is defined according to God’s original intention for the universe. (This is why God said that “It was Good” when he finished!) And as such, all beauty points to God, because it hints at His fingerprint upon the universe.
• Without a theology of the arts, the arts are minimized in the church to simply be a vehicle for a message. And in it’s worst form, it becomes kitsch, or even propaganda. But the arts, in a larger sense, should be an expression of one’s faith in and life lived in Christ. Our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the arts vastly affects how we use (or misuse) it in our churches, and how we treat (or mistreat) the artists in our churches.
• People have a really hard time using the word “artist” to describe themselves. And that is a shame. Because we are all made in the image of God, who defines Himself first as the “Creator,” the Artist God. If we cannot embrace this aspect of our humanity, we cannot fully understand or worship God as He really is.
I look forward to seeing you at the conference. There’s a lot to talk about!